How to keep your garden birds happy

What makes a bird feast?

Scraps or seeds? Bird feeder or table? Everything you need to know about feeding garden birds.

  • Feeding birds

What food can you leave out for birds and how can you keep your feeding station hygenic and pest-free? Here you’ll find the answers to all your bird feeding questions.

Feeding birds in the garden is a popular activity – over half of adults in the UK feed birds in their garden. That’s a lot of extra help for the birds!

Providing birds with supplementary food will bring them closer for you to marvel at their fascinating behaviour and wonderful colours. It will also reward them for sharing their lives with you. Feeding birds is also an ideal way to enthuse children about wildlife.

Supplementary feeding can’t provide all the natural proteins and vitamins that adult and young birds need, so it’s important to create and manage your garden to provide a source of natural foods as well, through well-managed lawns, shrub and flowerbeds.

If you provide both natural and supplementary food, your garden will be visited year-round by a host of different birds.

It is important to feed your garden birds responsibly and safely. By following a few simple guidelines, you can play a valuable role in helping your local birds overcome periods of natural food shortage, survive periods of severe winter weather and come into good breeding condition in the spring.

  • What food to provide

Bird seed mixtures 

There are different mixes for feeders and for bird tables and ground feeding. The better mixtures contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds, and peanut granules.

Small seeds, such as millet, attract mostly house sparrows, finches, reed buntings and collared doves, while flaked maize is taken readily by blackbirds. Tits and greenfinches favor peanuts and sunflower seeds. Mixes that contain chunks or whole nuts are suitable for winter feeding only. Pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many birds. Wheat and barley grains are often included in seed mixtures, but they are really only suitable for pigeons, doves and pheasants, which feed on the ground and rapidly increase in numbers, frequently deterring the smaller species.

Avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as again only the large species can eat them dry. These are added to some cheaper seed mixes to bulk them up. Any mixture containing green or pink lumps should also be avoided as these are dog biscuit, which can only be eaten when soaked. 

Black sunflower seeds

These are an excellent year-round food, and in many areas are even more popular than peanuts. The oil content is higher in black than striped ones, and so they are much better. Sunflower hearts (the husked kernels) are a popular no-mess food.

Nyjer seeds 

These are small and black with a high oil content. They need a special type of seed feeder, and are particular favorites with goldfinches and siskins.

Peanuts 

These are rich in fat and are popular with tits, greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches, great spotted woodpeckers and siskins. Crushed or grated nuts attract robins, dunnocks and even wrens. Nuthatches and coal tits may hoard peanuts. Salted or dry roasted peanuts should not be used. Peanuts can be high in a natural toxin, which can kill birds, so buy from a reputable dealer, such as our online shop, to guarantee freedom from aflatoxin.

Bird cake and food bars

Fat balls and other fat-based food bars are excellent winter food. If they are sold in nylon mesh bags, always remove the bag before putting the fat ball out – the soft mesh can trap and injure birds. You can make your own bird cake by pouring melted fat (suet or lard) onto a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake. Use about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. Stir well in a bowl and allow it to set in a container of your choice. An empty coconut shell, plastic cup or tit bell makes an ideal bird cake ‘feeder’. Alternatively, you can turn it out onto your bird table when solid.

Live foods and other insect foods

Mealworms are relished by robins and blue tits, and may attract other insect-eating birds such as pied wagtails.

Mealworms are a natural food and can be used to feed birds throughout the year. It is very important that any mealworms fed to birds are fresh. Any dead or discoloured ones must not be used as they can cause problems such as salmonella poisoning.

Waxworms are excellent, but expensive. Proprietary foods for insect-eating birds, such as ant pupae and insectivorous and soft bill food are available from bird food suppliers and pet shops. Insect food appropriately offered can attract tree creepers and wrens.

Cooking fat

Fat from cooking is bad for birds. The problem with cooked fat from roasting tins and dishes is that the meat juices have blended with the fat and when allowed to set, this consistency makes it prone to smearing, not good for birds’ feathers. It is a breeding ground for bacteria, so potentially bad for birds’ health. Salt levels depend on what meat is used and if any salt is added during cooking.

Lard and beef suet on their own are fine as they re-solidify after warming and as they are pure fat, it is not as suitable for bacteria to breed on. 

Polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils

These are unsuitable for birds. Unlike humans, birds need high levels of saturated fat, such as raw suet and lard. They need the high energy content to keep warm in the worst of the winter weather, since their body reserves are quickly used up, particularly on cold winter nights. The soft fats can easily be smeared onto the feathers, destroying the waterproofing and insulating qualities.

Dog and cat food

Meaty tinned dog and cat food form an acceptable substitute to earthworms during the warm, dry part of the summer when worms are beyond the birds’ reach. Blackbirds readily take dog food, and even feed it to their chicks.

Dry biscuits are not recommended as birds may choke on the hard lumps. It is sometimes added to cheaper seed mixtures for bulk. Soaked dog biscuit is excellent, except in hot weather as it quickly dries out. Pet food can attract larger birds such as magpies and gulls, and also neighborhood cats. If this is likely to be a problem, it is best avoided.

Milk and coconut

Never give milk to any bird. A bird’s gut is not designed to digest milk and it can result in serious stomach upsets, or even death. Birds can, however, digest fermented dairy products such as cheese. Mild grated cheese can be a good way of attracting robins and wrens.

Give fresh coconut only, in the shell. Rinse out any residues of the sweet coconut water from the middle of the coconut before hanging it out to prevent the build-up of black mildew.

Desiccated coconut should never be used as it may swell once inside a bird and cause death.

Rice and cereals

Cooked rice, brown or white (without salt added) is beneficial and readily accepted by all species during severe winter weather. Uncooked rice may be eaten by birds such as pigeons, doves and pheasants but is less likely to attract other species.

Porridge oats must never be cooked, since this makes them glutinous and could harden around a bird’s beak. Uncooked porridge oats are readily taken by a number of bird species.

Any breakfast cereal is acceptable bird food, although you need to be careful only to put out small quantities at a time. It is best offered dry, with a supply of drinking water nearby, since it quickly turns into pulp once wetted.

Moldy and stale food

Many molds are harmless, but some that can cause respiratory infections in birds, and so it is best to be cautious and avoid moldy food entirely.

If food turns moldy or stale on your bird table, you are probably placing out too large a quantity for the birds to eat in one day. Always remove any stale or moldy food promptly. Stale food provides a breeding ground for salmonella bacteria, which can cause food poisoning. At least one type of salmonella causes death among such species as greenfinches and house sparrows. Large quantities of food scattered on the ground may attract rats and mice. Rats can carry diseases that affect humans.

Bird food available from the RSPB direct http://shopping.rspb.org.uk/bird-food.html

  • How to feed birds

Bird tables

Bird tables are suitable for many species and most foods. A simple tray is perfectly adequate, with or without a roof. It needs a raised rim to retain the food and a gap at each corner of the rim to allow rainwater drain away and allow you to clean away droppings and uneaten food. Do not be tempted by elaborate designs that are difficult to clean.

Feeders

Nut feeders are made of steel mesh, and are the only safe method of offering nuts to wild birds. The mesh size needs to be large enough to prevent beak damage and small enough to prevent large pieces of nut from being removed – about 6 mm is a good compromise.

Seed feeders are tubular transparent containers with holes, through which birds are able to access the seed. These are designed for sunflower seeds and seed mixes labelled feeder seed. They will attract tits, siskins and greenfinches.

Nyjer seed is smaller and needs a special type of seed feeder. They are particularly popular with goldfinches and siskins. Hopper types with trays or flat surfaces are suited to general cereal based mixes, although any seed mix can be used. They will attract a similar range of birds to a bird table. Make sure that all feeders drain easily and do not allow the build-up of old food with the associated health risks.

Home-made devices

Half-coconuts and tit bells filled with fat, bird cake, etc can be hung from your bird table, a tree or from a bracket on a wall. They will attract greenfinches, house sparrows and tits.

Other ideas

Fill the holes and cracks of a post or suspended log with fatty food, such as suet, for agile birds, such as tits, nuthatches, woodpeckers, tree creepers and even wrens.

Thrushes and dunnocks prefer to feed on the ground. For these birds, scatter food on the lawn or use a ground feeding tray or hopper well clear of cover to avoid lurking cats. Remember to change the area you scatter the food over every few days, and never put out more than is eaten the same day to avoid attracting vermin.

If you put food such as apples and bread on the ground, space it out in different places in the garden. This will reduce competition between birds so that more birds can feed at any one time. If there is snow on the ground, clear small areas before putting down the food.

If you have a garden, consider planting items for wildlife to feed on or take shelter in. 

Mesh bags – a warning

Peanuts and fat balls are regularly sold in nylon mesh bags. Never put out any food in mesh bags. These may trap birds’ feet and even cause broken or torn off feet and legs. Birds with a barbed tongue, eg woodpeckers, can become trapped by their beaks.

Bird tables, feeders & baths available from the RSPB – http://shopping.rspb.org.uk/birds-wildlife.html

  • When to feed wild birds

Although winter feeding benefits birds most, food shortages can occur at any time of the year. By feeding the birds year round, you’ll give them a better chance to survive the periods of food shortage whenever they may occur.

Autumn and winter

At this time of year, put out food and water on a regular basis. In severe weather, feed twice daily if you can: in the morning and in the early afternoon.

Birds require high energy (high fat) foods during the cold winter weather to maintain their fat reserves to survive the frosty nights. Use only good quality food and scraps.

Always adjust the quantity given to the demand, and never allow uneaten foods to accumulate around the feeders. Once you establish a feeding routine, try not to change it as the birds will become used to it and time their visits to your garden accordingly.

Spring and summer

Only feed selected foods at this time of year. Good hygiene is vital, or feeding may do more harm than good.

During the summer months, birds require high protein foods, especially while they are moulting.

Black sunflower seeds, pinhead oatmeal, soaked sultanas, raisins and currants, mild grated cheese, mealworms, waxworms, mixes for insectivorous birds, good seed mixtures without loose peanuts, RSPB food bars and summer seed mixture are all good foods to provide. Soft apples and pears cut in half, bananas and grapes are also good. Some people use soaked dog or cat food and tinned pet foods, but these may attract magpies, crows and cats.

Avoid using peanuts, fat and bread at this time, since these can be harmful if adult birds feed them to their nestlings. If you feel you must put out peanuts, only do so in suitable mesh feeders that will not allow sizeable pieces of peanuts to be removed and provide a choking risk.

Home-made fatballs can go soft and rancid in warm summer weather, and should be avoided. Commercially produced fat bars are suitable for summer feeding but discard any remains after three weeks.

Temporary food shortage can occur at almost any time of the year, and if this happens during the breeding season, extra food on your bird table can make a big difference to the survival of young.

Birds time their breeding period to exploit the availability of natural foods: earthworms in the case of blackbirds and song thrushes, and caterpillars in the case of tits and chaffinches. It is now known that if the weather turns cold or wet during spring or summer, severe shortage of insect food can occur, and if the weather is exceptionally dry, earthworms will be unavailable to the ground feeders because of the hard soil.

Natural food shortages

If food shortages occur when birds have young in the nest they may be tempted by easy food put on birdtables to make up the shortfall in natural food, initially to feed themselves, but if the situation gets bad enough, they will also take the food to the nest.

If the food offered on your bird table isn’t suitable for the young chicks, it can do more harm than good, and can even be lethal to the chicks as they can choke on the food. It can be difficult for a human to gauge when food shortage in the wild occurs, and hence it is best not to put out food that is likely to create problems during the breeding season.

Therefore, never put out loose peanuts, dry hard foods, large chunks of bread, or fats during the spring or summer months.

  • Hygiene – vital precautions

When a large number of birds are attracted into an area to feed, the danger of disease increases. Prevention is always better than a cure, and is the best thing you can do to help the birds.

Most diseases are transmitted by droppings. If contaminated droppings mix with food, the birds run a risk of picking up the infection. Since the contamination can originate either from other birds or from animals (such as rats), it’s important to guard against infection from both sources in your garden.

Top tips for keeping your garden birds healthy

Good hygiene is particularly important during the summer months. The warmer weather can make food go off quicker, and can provide ideal conditions for harmful bacteria.

– Monitor your food supply carefully. If the food takes days to clear, reduce the amount of food you’re offering.

Use a bird table or hanging feeders. A ground feeding tray is preferable to putting food directly on the ground because it ‘s easier to keep clean. Food on the ground should all be eaten before nightfall. Rats are attracted to leftover food and often carry diseases, which can affect birds or humans.

Keep your bird tables and surrounding areas clean and free from droppings or mouldy food, which can provide breeding grounds for parasites and bacteria. If large amounts of droppings have accumulated, they should be cleared and burnt and the ground cleansed with a disinfectant.

Clean and wash your bird table and hanging feeders regularly (ideally, using a 5% disinfectant solution), and move feeding stations to a new area every month to prevent droppings accumulating underneath.

Water containers should be rinsed out daily, especially during the warmer months, and allowed to dry out before fresh water is added. Droppings can accumulate in bird baths.

Personal hygiene is also important. Don’t bring your feeders into your house to clean them – do it outside, using separate utensils. Wear gloves when cleaning feeders and bird tables, and particularly if you need to handle a sick or a dead bird in your garden. Always wash your hands when you’ve finished.